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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Response to Pop Culture in the Name of Islam

As-salaamu Alaikum!

Yvonne Ridley's article: Pop Culture in the Name of Islam
See: http://www.muslimsweekly.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1807&Itemid=238

Open Letter
From Sami Yusuf to Yvonne Ridley

Dear Yvonne,
Peace and blessings of God be upon you.

Your recent article on 'Pop Culture in the Name of Islam' has been brought
to my attention. I commend you for voicing your opinion and raising some
very important issues - albeit in a very provocative manner. I thought it
would be useful to share some of my thoughts with you on this matter.
As a Muslim artist, I regularly seek clarification and advice from
world-renowned scholars on art, music, singing and culture. Be informed that
the subject of music is one of the most controversial topics in Islamic
Jurisprudence. I respect those who consider music to be haram. Yes eminent
scholars of our past have opined such. However, I respect and follow the
opinion of other eminent scholars - classical and contemporary, who permit
singing and the use of musical instruments. The well-established
jurisprudential rule states that 'in matters where there is ikhtilaf
(differences of opinion) there is to be no condemnation of either opinion.'
This is from the beauty of the religion of Islam. The diversity of our
cultural, legal and social traditions is something we are in dire need of
celebrating not condemning. So let's agree to disagree on this one.

The obsessive fascination of fans towards any celebrity - be it in arts,
music, politics, media, etc - to the point of hysteria and hero-worshipping
is definitely unhealthy not to mention un-Islamic. Of course, as Muslims, we
are required to abide by certain etiquettes in whatever situation we may
find ourselves in. However, I definitely did not see girls dancing or
behaving indecently in any of my concerts. To state otherwise is a gross
exaggeration if not an outright fallacy. And if indeed that did take place
then let's deal with it in the true Prophetic tradition - a tradition that
imparts love, mercy, tolerance and wisdom. Let me share with you the story
of the Bedouin who came to the Prophet's mosque and started urinating in the
mosque itself. The Companions rushed to grab him and give him a 'good
beating.' But the Prophet did not allow them to do so and told them to let
him be. After the Bedouin had urinated, the Prophet asked his Companions to
bring a bucket of water and wash the place. Afterwards he called the man and
with gentleness and affection explained to him that this was a place of
worship and that it should be kept clean. Though I have to say that had the
Bedouin been around today he would be lucky to get away with just a 'good

Indeed the state of contemporary mainstream music is one dominated by
celebrity worship, materialism and the constant promotion of a consumerist
culture that seeks only to derive instant emotional and physical
gratification. The arts industry in general - and the music industry
specifically - is being commercialised at the expense of art itself. We
don't value good art or good music anymore - it's about what can sell most
in the market. In the midst of all this, it is upon all conscious and
responsible artists who look beyond the commercial to work in refining arts
and music. Apart from entertaining audiences, music is a powerful medium to
communicate values and social messages. In these times where heinous crimes
against humanity are being committed, we as artists - Muslims or
non-Muslims, British or non-British - have a duty to use this medium to
bring some sanity to this world of unrest, fear, violence, terror and war.
Human life and dignity are values that should be cherished and championed by
all. Had you listened carefully to the songs in my latest album which is
actually entitled 'My Ummah' before hastily passing judgements, you would
have noticed my modest attempt at addressing issues facing the global Muslim
community - such as regaining our lost legacy in all spheres of human life,
oppression in different parts of the Muslim world, Aids, landmines, poverty
and freedom to wear the hijab.

This leads me to another important issue which you raised - that of identity
and culture. Who are we? How do we define ourselves? What do we stand for?
Let me remind you again - I am a British Muslim. Proud to be Muslim and
proud to be British! Why? Because this is what Islam teaches me to be -
loyal towards my faith and my country. Throughout our rich history, wherever
Muslims settled they adopted and fused the best aspects of the local
culture/society with Islamic teachings and traditions. As Dr. Umar Faruq
Abdallah, a leading American Muslim scholar and thinker writes in 'Islam the
Cultural Imperative': ...In history, Islam showed itself to be culturally friendly and, in that regard, has been likened to a crystal clear river. Its waters (Islam) are pure, sweet, and life-giving but-having no color of their own-reflect the bedrock (indigenous culture) over which they flow. In China, Islam looked Chinese; in Mali, it looked African. Sustained cultural relevance to distinct peoples, diverse places, and different times underlay Islam's long success as a global civilization...

At a time when leading Muslim scholars and thinkers have reached an advanced
stage in crystallising theories of citizenship and positive integration into
Western societies, any discussion of renouncing parts of our identity is
simply ridiculous, dangerous and destructive - especially for someone who
has no other homeland. Such emotional fist-pumping and chest-pounding about
renouncing our British identity may seem attractive to a minority of Muslim
youth, but as Muslims in positions of influence like yourself, we should not
play to these base instincts. Rather, we should try to be more far-sighted
and responsible in our discourse and not sacrifice this in the pursuit of
tabloid-style sensationalist journalism.

Do you not see the Prophet of Islam shedding tears whilst migrating from
Makkah - his beloved homeland to Madina despite the persecution he suffered
at the hands of its people. Britain is my home. I was raised here as a
child, I went to school here, most of my friends - Muslims and non-Muslims -
are British and my earliest as well as fondest memories are rooted here.
Does being British mean I take pride in the oppressive and exploitative
colonial past of Britain? Does it mean I support the British invasion of
Afghanistan and Iraq? Does it mean I support the Anti-Terrorism Act? Does it
mean I support the erosion of civil liberties and human rights? Of course
not! But Yvonne, let us be fair and not forget that it was in Britain that
the world witnessed the largest anti-war demonstration - a testimony to the
moral consciousness of the British public. I too was in that demonstration
voicing my discontent over the foreign policies of our government. Although
we have our fair share of racism, Islamophobia, discrimination,
under-representation - and in no way am I claiming that we live in a utopian
society, but I still believe that British society is amongst the most
tolerant, open, liberal, multi-cultural and inclusive societies in the
world. We don't need to go far but Muslims in the Continent would envy the
liberties and opportunities that British Muslims take for granted. Actually
the real debate that needs to take place is how are we to shape this
emerging British / European / Western Muslim identity and what direction it
should take. I see my work a humble contribution towards that end.
You are critical of my mention that the Metropolitan Police is inclusive of
Muslims. By God, who are you depending on to protect and safeguard our
streets? Yes, there is no doubt that the Metropolitan Police have committed
a series of grave mistakes and blunders - the recent Forest Gate incident is
one such example and the Police must be held fully accountable for their
actions. But we as Britons and Muslims have a religious and civic obligation
to help maintain a safe and secure Britain. This actually raises serious
questions about the participation of British Muslims not just in the
Metropolitan Police but in mainstream civil society.

We have three options
as a community: [1] To assimilate and lose our cultural, ethnic and even
religious roots. [2] To ghettoise and divorce ourselves from society and
face extermination. [3] To positively integrate and contribute to society
whilst remaining loyal to both faith and country. I - like the vast majority
Muslims - have chosen option three. We need to build trust and partnerships
with civil institutions and engage with them. This path entails that we be
active members in our communities and societies; that we participate at all
levels of society from politics to sports, from academia to arts, from
business to media; that we reserve and exercise the right of dissent and
criticism; that we join our fellow citizens in building a safe, peaceful,
tolerant and pluralistic society that embodies the values of freedom and
justice. Thus I commend you for standing in the last European Elections,
General Elections and the recent Council Elections as a candidate in order
to get your views heard, to make an impact, and to represent British people
- although I hope you have better luck next time. Positive engagement - not
anarchist ranting -- is the path we must tread.

It is true that the state of the global Muslim community is saddening but
are we meant to live in perpetual grieving and lamenting and dress in black?
Despite all the oppression and persecution suffered by the Prophet, he would
always find time to celebrate the different joyful moments in life such as
marriages, births, Eids and other happy occasions. He, peace and blessings
of God be upon him, also found time to enjoy poetry and even had appointed a
personal poet - the notable companion Hassan ibn Thabit.

Maintaining balance and adopting the middle way is the key in these troubled
times of ours. Extremism and extremists have no place in Islam and in our
civil societies. "Perished are the extremists" is a famous Prophetic
tradition. Extremism is not a problem unique to Islam. Every religion, every
way of life, every ideology has its puritans and those willing to distort
and misinterpret it to meet their own agenda. And these are no different to
those that commit acts of terror, who preach extremism, and who sow seeds of
hatred in the name if Islam. There is no denying that Muslims in places like
Palestine, Iraq, Kashmir and Chechnya are facing oppression and tragedy
every day, and both the Muslim world and the West need to come together to
solve these problems in the greater interest of humanity. Western
governments in particular must understand that to help the majority of
Muslims defeat the minority of extremists, they must assist us in
eradicating the daily humiliation faced by Muslims across many parts of the
world. Ending this humiliation is the only way forward for us.

You have every right to criticise and disagree with me or anyone else for
that matter, and I always welcome any advice and constructive criticism for
I know my defects and shortcomings are many. I am guided by the ancient
wisdom which states 'May God have mercy on the one who shows me my defects -
for that is the best gift he could give me.' However, in the Islamic
tradition there are adab (ethics) of criticism and disagreement. I know you
wrote your article with sincerity and zeal, but on a more personal level, I
was deeply pained and saddened by the hostile tone and the vulgar style of
your language that was brimming with sarcasm and was clearly un-Islamic,
indecent and a gross violation of the beautiful teachings of our beloved
Prophet who said "I was not sent except to perfect your manners." Using
words such as "astagfirullah dude," "lap-dancing," 'whooping and dancing,"
and describing the volunteer stewards as "pipe cleaners" and "bulldozers"
are inappropriate to say the very least. What shocked and even angered me
was the way you shamelessly insulted our pure innocent sisters who were
supporting a charity concert by describing them as "fluffers"!
(Incidentally, these very sisters managed to raise over £100,000 for orphans
all over the world.) I - like the vast majority of those who read your
article - was blissfully ignorant about the very existence of this
disgusting obscene word, and I would question the wisdom of introducing it
to the vocabulary of your readers. As to my performances, I always
consciously endeavour to be responsible, respectable, modest and dignified
on stage.

It has been my approach that whenever personal criticism is levelled at me I
ignore it and get on with my work, as my philosophy in life is to build and
not destroy, and to unite not divide. However, on this occasion I felt
duty-bound to respond because of the dangerous ideas and notions contained
in your article. Yvonne, let us work together as fellow Muslims and Britons
in building a better future for our community and all human beings and
strive to make our world a safer, more peaceful, tolerant and prosperous

Yours faithfully,
Sami Yusuf


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